TransCanada, one of the largest energy companies in North America, is seeking to build a pipeline â€“â€“ known as Keystone XL â€“â€“ that would transport synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma, and then eventually as far south as the Gulf Coast region.
In 2006, it was estimated that there are 170 billion barrels of viable, recoverable oil at Athabasca, making the areaâ€™s reserves second only to Saudi Arabiaâ€™s.
Since the pipeline crosses international and state borders, President Obama must first grant TransCanada a permit before the company can move forward with construction.
Last week, the administration announced that it would delay granting approval for the construction of the controversial pipeline until at least 2013.
Critics of the administration have accused the president of pandering to his liberal base while killing thousands of jobs in the process.
â€œThe current project has already been deemed environmentally sound, and calling for a new route is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to avoid upsetting the presidentâ€™s political base before the election,â€ said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement.
Calling the Keystone XL project â€œenvironmentally sound,â€ is quite a stretch, Mr. Boehner.
Thatâ€™s because pollution from tar sands oil greatly eclipses that of conventional oil. During tar sands oil production alone, levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three times higher than those of conventional oil, due to more energy-intensive extraction and refining processes.
The result is higher emissions of toxic sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, emissions known to cause smog and acid rain and contribute to respiratory diseases like asthma.
The proposed pipeline would carry 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil into the United States daily, generating emissions equal to adding more than six million new cars to U.S. roads.
Itâ€™s not just emissions from producing and subsequently burning the oil, either.
Extracting this oil involves strip-mining on a massive scale, then processing the sands to extract the bitumen they contain. Vast amounts of water are needed to separate the bitumen from sand, silt and clay. If production reaches the proposed 900,000 barrels a day, these operations would use roughly 400 million gallons of water a day.
Ninety percent of this polluted water is then dumped into large human-made pools, known as tailing ponds. These ponds are home to toxic sludge, and are full of substances like cyanide and ammonia â€“â€“ which ends up in neighboring clean water supplies.
The area in Western Canada where the tar sands are extracted from is also home to thousands of indigenous people. Communities living downstream from these tailing ponds have seen spikes in rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus and hyperthyroidism.
â€œMy people are dying, and anyone involved in the tar sands industry must take responsibility for that,â€ said George Poitras in an interview with Scottish newspaper, The Herald.
More than 100 people in Poitrasâ€™ small lakeside village of Fort Chipewyan have died from cancer â€“â€“ out of a First Nation population of about 1,200.
Poitras blames the high rates of cancer among his people on toxic pollutants from massive mining operations 150 miles upstream.
â€œThe industry is not just dirty oil, it is bloody oil,â€ said the 46-year-old former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation tribe.
These problems will only get worse with the construction of the
new pipeline and ramped-up production. Unfortunately, an area the size of Florida is already set for extraction. These operations have left vast ponds of contaminated waste, which can be seen from outer space, leading critics to call the project, â€œthe most destructive project on Earth.â€
In the summer 2010, a million gallons of tar sands oil poured into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan from a pipeline run by another Canadian company, Enbridge. The spill exposed residents to toxic chemicals, coated wildlife and has caused long-term damage to the local economy and ecosystem.
Furthermore, TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline has already spilled a dozen times in less than a year of operation, prompting a corrective action order from the Department of Transportation.
The Keystone XL pipeline would cross six U.S. states and cross major rivers, including the Missouri River, Yellowstone and Red Rivers, as well as key sources of drinking and agricultural water, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to more than two million Americans.
So while Obamaâ€™s timing may seem suspicious, there are many reasons other than simple political posturing for his decision to delay the project.
While Obamaâ€™s record on protecting environmental interests thus far is pretty weak, last weekâ€™s decision gives me hope for better environmental protection policy decisions moving forward.
Joe Vajgrt is a senior journalism major who rides his bike all the time for a reason. His column appears on Mondays in the Collegian. He can be reached at letters@Collegian.com